A Season in Antarctica

John Pollack
May 01, 2002

CAPE EVANS, Antarctica—

On this rocky spit of land where the wind blows so hard that even the snow flees northward, a low wooden hut awaits the return of its builder.

Jesse Fisher

Don Voigt (with beard) and Patrick Shore tend an instrument box on Diamond Hill.

Its shelves are stocked with boxes of macaroni and tins of cocoa, big pots rest on the cast-iron stove, and fur sleeping bags lie atop snug, dry bunks. At first glance, it looks as if the hut's occupants might have left just a

few years ago, and looked forward to a warm and hearty homecoming. But some 90 winters have passed now, and only the ghosts of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his men wander this forlorn refuge—the last shelter they knew before setting out on their ill-fated, 1911 race to discover the South Pole.

Enduring great hardship through some of the worst weather on earth, they lost that race to Norwegian Roald Amundsen by just over a month, and lost their own lives on the return journey. But here at Cape Evans, their hut—and their memory—remain frozen in time.

Today, with the advantages of modern technology, it takes a certain stoicism to work in the Antarctic. A typical TAMSEIS deployment starts in the morning, with team members loading about 900 pounds of gear onto a snowmobile and dragging it to a helicopter or Twin Otter ski-plane at the ice runway, on the sea ice near McMurdo Station.

This equipment includes seismic sensors (each the size and shape of a fire extinguisher); a disk drive and electronics that retrieve data from the sensors; solar panels mounted on sheets of plywood to power the seismometers; aluminum poles, cables and hardware to erect the solar panels; car batteries to store

energy for overcast days; a heavy box and barrel to house the equipment; various tools and testing equipment; and a day's worth of food and water.

Basic equipment also includes a pair of red "survival bags"—heavy vinyl duffels with mountain tents, stoves and sleeping bags, should bad weather prevent the aircraft from a timely return.

The flight to a site is often the second-best part of the day (the best being the flight home). It's not atypical here to soar over glaciers that seem as big as the Amazon, dozens of miles across and snaking their way upward to a horizon over 60 miles away.

Sometimes the flight path carries a team up through the rugged Dry Valleys, which look like empty deserts of strewn boulders and strangely carved rock spires.

Other days, our plane will pass over chains of huge, forbidding peaks that look just like jagged islands, poking through an ice sheet that is probably as thick as several Empire State Buildings stacked atop one another.

Landing at a chosen site, the team of 3 or 4 people will unload the equipment and check the field radio before watching—with no small regret—as the aircraft departs.

Then people divide up; some dig a pit for the sensor in the snow or rock, and a second pit for the big wooden crate that holds the car batteries and other equipment. These pits are generally a foot or two deep, and keep the equipment secure from winds that can gust upwards of 70 mph.

At the same time, other team members will assemble and moor either a small aluminum A-frame (if the site is on rock) or a 10-foot tower of steel pipe with guy wires (if the site is on snow). These form the structures to which the solar panels are mounted.

Once the equipment is set up and connected, team members will test it carefully to see if it is recording data properly. Sometimes components fail, especially in the cold, and must be replaced with spares.

"Cold is the biggest enemy for the equipment," says Tim Parker, a researcher with PASSCAL, a scientific equipment consortium that provides TAMSEIS with its scientific instruments. "Cables break. Joints go. Electronics fail."

Cold is also the enemy of those who have to make repairs in the field; some delicate fixes require bare fingers, and this direct exposure to the wind can become extremely painful after 30 seconds or so.

But once the solar panels are providing power and the equipment is running smoothly, the team secures the site against the elements as best as possible, drilling lids down, taping box seams against fine, blowing snow, piling rocks to hold equipment in place, and making sure that guy wires are securely anchored.

All this work, of course, may be taking place in temperatures that freeze your balaclava into a helmet in a matter of minutes, and turn your goggles into a blurry, frosted visor just as fast. If things go well, installing a

seismic station may be complete in three or four hours. If equipment is temperamental or the ground is more stubborn than a pickaxe, it can drag out for eight or ten. "If it's cold," says Andy Nyblade, a Penn State

seismologist and a leader of TAMSEIS, "you just grin and bear it."

That's why, at the end of a hard day in the field, the drone of a distant Twin Otter or the whumping rotor of an approaching chopper is always a great sound. It means a ride home to McMurdo Station, a hot supper, and a warm bed.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott never had that option; suffering from exposure and trapped by a blizzard, he and his companions starved to death on the journey back to Cape Evans, just 11 miles from a food cache. A year later, when a search party came across Scott's tent, they found his journal alongside his frozen corpse. In it, he had scrawled the cold truth: "Great God, this is an awful place."

Awful—and awesome—at once.

Last Updated May 01, 2002